Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

by Isobel Coleman
September 6, 2012

Tahir Naveed Chaudhry (L) a lawyer for Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, speaks to the media along with other lawyers after he appeared before a judge at the district court in Islamabad, Pakistan on September 3, 2012 (Faisal Mahmood/Courtesy Reuters). Tahir Naveed Chaudhry (L) a lawyer for Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl accused of blasphemy, speaks to the media along with other lawyers after he appeared before a judge at the district court in Islamabad, Pakistan on September 3, 2012 (Faisal Mahmood/Courtesy Reuters).


Tracking blasphemy cases in Pakistan is a good proxy for measuring the ebb and flow of extremism–and it’s not a pretty picture these days. The latest case to roil the waters involves a young girl from Pakistan’s Christian minority who was discovered last month with burned pages of religious texts among her belongings. (Her accusers said the pages came from the Koran, although this story has since come under scrutiny.) A mob gathered, calling for her arrest, and she was taken into police custody and charged with blasphemy, an offense that can carry the death penalty. What makes this situation even more egregious than the usual sentenced-to-death-for insulting-Islam case is that while reports of the girl’s exact age vary, she seems to be around 14 years old and has a developmental disability.

The girl in question, Rimsha Masih, is still in custody. Many of the area’s Christians have fled, fearing for their homes and lives. If history is any indication, there is good reason to believe that an angry mob or a murderous vigilante poses at least as much danger to the girl as does the legal system–no one convicted under the blasphemy laws has actually been executed. But in 2010, as two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet left court, gunmen shot them both dead. In 2011, liberal governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard for his advocacy against the blasphemy laws; Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated by Taliban militants for the same reason.

While the blasphemy laws are ostensibly on the books to protect Islam from insult, in practice they seem to be used more to provide cover for personal vendettas and grievances against neighbors or to rile up action against religious minorities, such as Pakistan’s embattled Ahmadi community (an offshoot Islamic group that is regularly persecuted in Pakistan) or Christians. As the Economist reports, the underlying aim in going after the young girl Masih “seems to have been to drive several hundred Christian families from the area for good.”

Moderates in Pakistan have tried over the years to change the blasphemy laws but they face an enormous challenge. First, many Pakistanis seem to believe that the laws come straight from the Koran and are therefore sacred. Second, there is a long historical precedent. Laws governing religious offenses have been around since before the country’s independence. They were turbocharged in the 1980s by General Zia-ul Haq’s government as part of his overall effort to “Islamize” the country.  Trying to undo the laws brings on charges of going against shariah. Third, people who campaign against the laws, like Salman Taseer, do so at the risk of their lives.

Still, some brave moderates continue to speak against the laws and try to change them. In 2010, parliamentarian Sherry Rehman (now Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S.) proposed legislation that would immediately remove religious offenses from the jurisdiction of local officials and local courts and put them in the hands of higher police officials and higher courts, which would have made it harder for people to inflame local sentiments and twist the evidence. But outspoken religious conservatives scuttled the bill.

A recent twist in Rimsha Masih’s case could indicate a turning of the tide. One of her accusers, a cleric, is now himself in custody for blasphemy after a colleague at his mosque accused him of fabricating evidence—no less than planting burned pages from the Koran on the girl. It’s not clear what made the colleague step forward, but perhaps the hypocrisy of it all was just too much for him to bear. Maybe the ludicrousness of this case will help Pakistanis realize how the blasphemy laws are making a mockery of their legal system and religion.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by R Andrew Ohge

    We have “Leading Lights” from the international Muslim community who continually proclaim that Islam is a Religion of “Tolerance”, Imams who proclaim that ‘Allah’ is All-Forgiving(don’t forget “All-Knowing”, as well as the less vociferous Majority who stand on the principal that Islam is a Religion of Peace. I KNOW Muslims who, in fact practice their Faith absolutely along these very principles.

    That there ARE entire nations that have laws on their books like Pakistan is, and should be, an embarrassment to the Muslim Majority that support a more moderate World View, that like most of us, want a Legacy of Prosperity and Opportunity to pass on to their children and heirs.

    I’m not going to leave the rest of World Religion “off the hook” either. There is every flavor of “Ism” in this world promoting laws and societal models that reflect issues of “morality”.

    While keeping the streets safe for all, protecting life and property, as well as infrastructure Is a necessary requirement for a civil Global Community, we spend trillions of dollars every year on victim-less crimes of every type and description-ALL under the dictates of some “Ism’s” Philosophical view.

    In the new Globalized Societies there is frankly no more room OR money for this to continue. Those who adhere to Pakistan’s Law on “Blasphemy” will cite “Injury to Allah’s and Mohammed’s Dignity/Holiness, etc.

    Unless I misread the Q’uran, Allah is “All Powerful”. If so, I do believe HE can handle this Himself, and likely with more reasonableness and fairness than mere men. The same goes for all the rest. You could surprise even yourself leading by example rather than by threat of punishment. (“Ism” have been doing this for Millenia without any long-lasting success.)

    Let’s put an end to absolutes in our Law books, learn a little tolerance, get a sense of humor, get down to the business of creating a functional Global Society where everyone of every “flavor can fairly prosper, and just plain “Get Over It.”

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    As a Pakistani, I am ashamed of what is happening. As Rimsha is released, she is in more danger as vigilante mob have killed many people before, after courts have refused to convict people. While religious minorities have faced mounting exremism, even mainstream Muslim sects like Shias have recently been targeted and many of their members have been killed. I am at a loss of what to say.

  • Posted by Aroon

    There are many Pakistani muslims who are very well educated with secular belief systems, tolerant and open outlook towards the world. However,their voices are feable or they are afraid to face these unreasonable, intolerant people with middle age mindset. It seems like, it is a matter of a short time of another 10 to 20 years before Pakistan will go backwards deep into the middle ages with no way to return. But, with new age nuclear weapon to connect them to the modern world. Hope this wildfire of intolerence is contained before it burns down the rest of Pakistan and grow into rest of the world. PAKISTANIS PLEASE DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

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